Posts Tagged ‘Numbers’

A Toast To Bread…

July 9, 2014

BlessingForBreads+CakesBread, whether we enjoy it as a sandwich or with a meal does more for us than merely satisfying our hunger. If we pay attention, it lets us taste the histories of civilization in every bite as it nourishes our bodies and spirits. In evolving as we do; from fertility to growth, maturity and decay, bread is an apt metaphor of life itself.

In the Books of Exodus (16:1-36) and Numbers (11:1-9), bread, in the form of a mysterious substance called manna, was ‘given’ to the early Israelites during their desert tenure. The manna was ground and baked into cakes which purportedly tasted like honey or any other food one wished to imagine. Though no one knows what manna actually was, its etymology and physical form invited speculation that ran the gamut from coriander seed to ‘kosher’ locusts’, hallucinogenic mushrooms and bdellium, a sort of resin, perhaps from the tamarisk tree. This form of ‘bread’ appeared only until they reached and settled in Israel where they learned to cultivate grains. Eventually, grain-based bread was incorporated into religious ritual and made its way to our tables to symbolize the Temple altar. The bread we call ‘challah‘ was named for the piece of dough that was separated from the unbaked loaf and given to the Temple priests to burn as ‘minhah’, a sacrificial offering. According to rabbinical commentary on the Book of Numbers (15:19), it was to be made only from one of the five species of grain (wheat, barley, spelt, oats, and rye) though some commentators differed on which grains were indicated. Absent the Temple, destroyed in 70 C.E., this custom is now largely followed by religiously observant women who bake bread at home. Technically there are two words in Hebrew for bread; challah, an egg-based bread and lechem, bread baked for daily use. In biblical times, the Sabbath bread was probably a form of the pita we enjoy at Middle Eastern restaurants and bakeries.

While the long, complex history of bread and bread-making is worthy fodder for the myriad culinary tomes out there, I will be brief here, as the goal of An Illumination Of Blessings is to visually extract the essence of how bread came to us and the ways by which we honor it and our Creator. Accordingly, the two blessings on this page address all forms of bread and grain-based baked goods. Among the five species of grain that form the borders of my illustration is a stalk of rice. I’ve included it here both for its esthetic beauty and to represent its use in the Spanish or Sephardic Jewish tradition which basically adheres to Orthodox customs with differences in interpretation.

The process of bread-making from harvesting to oven to table is embodied in two figures. There is a woman carrying a sheaf of wheat standing beside an upper hand-stone and lower grindstone or quern. These were used to grind (mill) the grain until more efficient devices were developed. Grinding was a difficult, time consuming task commonly assigned to women. In ancient times, each household stored its own grain and it is known that at least three hours of daily effort were required to produce enough flour to make bread for a family of five.

In the lower right corner, a baker is standing behind a sack of flour and pantry scoop. Under one arm are two baguettes and a challah. The round challah is of a type used on the Rosh Hashanah holiday to signify the wish for a long life. The baguettes are there simply because they remind me of the delicious breakfast served in the pension where my husband and I stayed on our first visit to Paris. The oven paddle or ‘peel’ in his right hand is a tool that has been in use since ancient times to move loaves of bread and baked goods in and out of hot ovens. It symbolizes one of oldest hand crafts in the world. On a visit to the Egyptian galleries of the British Museum some years ago, I saw some actual 5,000 year old loaves of bread and stalks of wheat that, if they could speak, would tell of ancient summers in the Land of the Pharaohs.

The ‘ha-motzi’ blessing at the top of the page is for any bread made from the aforementioned five grains, while the blessing below it is the ‘mezonos’ recited over baked goods such as cakes, pastries, cereals and cooked grain goods like pasta or couscous. Online are many lists that specify which products require this blessing. One of these is: http://oukosher.org/guide-to-blessings/

Since baker’s products are as many and varied as their cultures, customs and their imaginations permit, I’ve chosen just a few representative samples of both bread and dessert items. In addition to the challah and baguettes mentioned above, there are bagels, pita and a croissant for breads. Two types of rugelach, apple strudel, sufganiyot (jelly donuts popular in Israel and the US), macaroons, hamentaschen (for the Purim holiday) and mandel brate (almond bread) with fruit and nuts stand for desserts.

There is one last detail for this blessing. If you look closely, the challah at the center of the page bears a tiny number 78. Students of Hebrew mysticism may know that the gematria (numerical equivalence of letters and words in Torah) of bread or lechem is 78; the letter lamed =30, the letter chet = 8 and the final letter mem = 40. One of the lessons learned by the Israelites after their exodus from Egypt was that their bread/manna, was a ‘heaven-sent’ daily miracle. And in many ways, it still is. While we no longer subsist on manna, we understand the thought process around this miracle as the basis for agricultural laws which we continue to develop, perhaps with divine guidance. Consequently, we are expected to recite Grace after each meal thanking G-d for sustaining us in this way. In gematria, the numerical equivalent for G-d’s Name is 26 and it appears each time in the Birkat Hamazon or Grace After Meals. Three times 26 = 78 to bring us full circle as we acknowledge our Creator and the miracles of life.

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For Shavuot: An Antidote For Apathy

May 25, 2012

Despite my conviction that works of art and literature, always contain the potential to become a work in progress, I am invariably surprised to find proof of this continual process of awakening and learning. Tomorrow, as we begin the Book of Numbers (BaMidbar), it is nearly three years after the publication of Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009). Though I created illustrations for Parashat BaMidbar based on narrative with some artistic license, I recently wondered why Parashah BaMidbar (In The Desert) was designated as the Torah reading on the festival of Shavuot when it opens on the census of Israel, and focuses on tribal positions around the Tabernacle along with the rules regarding service of the Levite priestly class rather than the actual receiving of the Law from Mt. Sinai.

The parashah states, “Hashem spoke to Moshe in the desert of Sinai” (BaMidbar 1:1),for which the Midrash (BaMidbar Rabba 1:7)offered this metaphorical explanation: “Our Sages have inferred… that the Torah was given to the accompaniment of three things: fire, water, and desert” (Bamidbar Rabba 1:7). Though I am aware of the concept of mystical, elemental underpinnings within the desert sojourn, a 2010 commentary by Rabbi David Pinto, ShLIT”A provided some further clarification:”It may be that by this teaching, the Sages wanted to show man that he can only safeguard his learning and resist the evil inclination, which seeks to control him every day, by means of the Torah which possesses these three characteristics. As our Sages have said, “I created the evil inclination, but I created the Torah as its antidote.” (Kiddushin 30b). “Since the evil inclination is made of fire,…a person can only resist
it by the power of Torah, which is compared to fire… The evil inclination is like a small fire that anything can extinguish, and the Torah is a blazing fire that never goes out…thus the fire of the evil inclination is consumed by the fire of the Torah…In order for a person not to grow proud on account of the fire of the Torah, he must humble himself and resemble water. (Ruth Zutah 1). This is why the Sages instituted the reading of Parsha Bamidbar prior to Shavuot. It is in order to remind us that the Torah only endures in us when we metaphorically transform into a desert (perhaps a receptacle) for G-d’s will.”

Wow. I guess that’s about as close as we’ll come to a ‘user’s manual’ for the Torah, whose full meaning and that of the events surrounding its debut will (hopefully) continue to be interpreted for many generations to come. Whether or not you agree with these ideas, apathy is not an option…

Words, Promises And Protean Realities

July 20, 2011

While divine utterances are said to be the foundation of Creation, it was only when Adam became tasked with creating names for the animals in Eden that humanity had its first opportunity to wield the power of words, thereby codifying the measure of their appearance and behavior. (Folk singer Bob Dylan wrote a charming ditty on this theme which occasionally surfaces when I am sketching at the zoo.) But this entry is less about Adam and his animals than about our increasingly casual misuse of the power of words in our Age of Infoglut. In Mattot, this week’s Torah portion, we are reminded of the potence of our verbal expressions and their ability to alter our perceptions and the nature of our current reality.  An earlier post, on July 8, 2010 presented my interpretation of this parashah with the illustration that appears on the left-hand side of the spread. Today, you can see the facing image, titled ‘Properties And Promises’. Here are the leaders of the tribes of Reuben, Gad,and the half-tribe of Manasseh (son of Joseph), standing on the portions of land they requested from Moses after the war against Midian. Observing that these particular territories, though outside the boundaries of the Promised Land, would provide abundant supprt for their great numbers of livestock, they sheepishly added that their children would benefit from the security of the towns they would build there. Recalling the near-disaster of the meraglim (the ten scouts and their horror stories of Canaan), Moses expressed vehement concern that these tribes would influence the rest of the Israelites to settle elsewhere as well. Yet he granted their request under two conditions: these tribes must commit to serving as shock troops for the defense of Israel in their conquest of the Promised Land and must prioritize building towns for their families ahead of facilities for their flocks and herds. The object suspended above the middle figure, whose hand is raised in an oath, is a ner tamid (eternal light). A familiar presence in every synagogue, this lamp is never permitted to be extinguished for it symbolizes the eternal presence of G-d, Who hears our promises.

Perhaps, in the light of the current British tabloid scandal, Mr. Murdoch and his minions would do well to revisit  and contemplate this bit of Bible lore. As my beloved paternal grandmother once observed: “Once the words  are out of your mouth (or in print!), you don’t own them anymore.”

This excerpt is from my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009) which can be purchased directly from the publisher, http://www.pomegranate.com/a166.html or from Amazon,  amzn.to/gZSp5j where you will find several reviews.